HairBrained feels like an amalgamation of just about every college movie trope you’ve ever seen. There’s Eli (Alex Wolff), the 14-year-old precocious freshman who knows how to do everything but exist socially, Leo (Brendan Fraser), the Van Wilder type taken to an age-extreme whose going to teach him how to fit in, the hot girl, the jock, the indie girl who is actually the love interest, and the plot that chooses a McGuffin, in this case an academic decathlon-style quiz competition called collegiate mastermind, and attaches way too much significance to it. That’s not necessarily a recipe for failure, as there’s plenty of room within that framework to riff on what’s come before, but HairBrained never quite figures out how to do this effectively.
There are some moments of genuinely amusing observational and physical comedy – in one shot, Eli silently struggles to push a library cart that refuses to run straight down a hall, which is actually way more amusing than it might sound – but for the most part, the movie doesn’t seem quite sure of what it wants to be. There’s definitely some meta-commentary here, or at least some attempts at the same. In theory, this fits pretty perfectly with Eli’s dry, super-smart character, but Eli’s character arc is also about breaking out socially and learning to interact with others in a genuine fashion, which means the movie can’t commit wholesale to absurdity in the way that, say, Dan Harmon has done to great effect in TV’s Community. This means that HairBrained ends up feeling more like a retread than an original work.
Again, this wouldn’t necessarily by the film’s death knell, except that it finds itself unable to match any of its influences. Eli should be interesting as a child genius, but for the most part he ends up a very flat character who has minor bits of characterization forced upon him by scenes that don’t really feel like they have to be there. Eli also struggles as a character in that the beginning and end of his intelligence is that…he’s intelligent. He doesn’t have a particular interest in literature, or sciences, or anything else; the quiz competition, which he quickly comes to dominate, is made up of intentionally obscure and absurd facts, like the scientific name for a third nipple. This latter detail is another attempt at humor that is occasionally amusing, but I wonder if it does more harm than good in context. More likely, it would be fine if Eli’s character were better defined elsewhere.
As for Wolff’s performance, he seems to lean heavily on direction and blocking. He’s perfectly capable of carrying out everything that’s asked of him, but it doesn’t look like he’s able to bring much extra to the role. This stands in contrast to Brendan Fraser, who looks like he’s doing his best to have fun with the material, but is positively hamstrung by the shortcomings of his character. Leo is returning to college after years spent screwing up his life and ruining everything good that did happen to him; there’s even a subplot with his estranged daughter that crops up. But the character exists too much to be nothing but Eli’s foil. The attempts to draw an arc are there, but very limited. Fraser is capable of more, and adds to the scenes where he’s actually given something to do, but it doesn’t seem to make much dent on the proceedings.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
There are some genuinely amusing moments in HairBrained, but there are far more that are generic to a fault. The film attempts some meta-humor through the deadpanning of its main characters, but this gets muddled by the need to add some genuine character interaction to fulfill the social arc of wunderkind Eli. The result is a movie that feels far too much like a retread of played out ideas with a unique twist or two that doesn’t pay off very well. Brendan Fraser is the most consistently positive part of this movie, but even he is held back by a dearth of material from which to work.